THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN DEBATE:
FOREIGN POLICY MOVES FRONT & CENTER
By Dr. Michael Rubin
It was neither the Iraq war nor the failure to embrace multilateralism which undercut U.S. credibility under Bush, but rather foreign policy flip-flops. On June 24, 2002, amidst a rash of Palestinian suicide attacks, Bush won the plaudits of terror victims when he declared, "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership [uncompromised by terror], so that a Palestinian state can be born." His audience applauded.
Reversal was swift. Within a year, Bush abandoned his no-terrorism redline. Just this year, to sweeten a Palestinian audience, he promised Palestinian independence, even as Palestinian rockets fell on Israeli towns. Today, the U.S. government is the largest donor to the Palestinian territories, subsidizing food and housing, enabling Fatah and Hamas to spend more on guns and rockets.
Because of President Bush, few dissidents will ever again trust Washington. At his second inauguration, Bush declared, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression." He applauded as Lebanese rose up against Syrian occupation. And, yet, in her subsequent visits, Condoleezza Rice embraced the Syrian-imposed ruler.
On June 6, 2007, Bush declared himself the "Dissident President" at a conference in Prague and assigned diplomats to resolve the case of each dissident with whom he met. Bush glowed as activists gave him a standing ovation. A year later, no dissident present has heard from either the White House or the State Department. On January 11, 2008, after his historic visit to Washington, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalqam bragged that the Bush administration had failed to demand the release of Libya's leading dissident, whom Bush had once lauded. Bush had told each audience what it wanted to hear. Affirmation and applause trumped principle and consistency.
Pandering undercuts trust in the United States. After promising Japan that Washington would "not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of [North Korea's] nuclear weapons program," Bush surprised Tokyo with a deal that let Pyongyang keep its bombs. Bush's reversal on Iranian nuclear enrichment caught both Israel and moderate Arab states flatfooted and raised the possibility of unilateral Israeli military strikes. Bush's speeches may garner allies' applause, but foreign capitals know they no longer describe policy.
Obama's willingness to promise anything replicates Bush. Speaking to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama won rapturous applause when he declared, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided." Less than three months later, he told Palestinian officials, again to applause, he welcomed Jerusalem's division.
Obama repeatedly promises a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq, although, when questioned, his aides say ground conditions will determine withdrawal. To some audiences, Obama wins plaudits with declarations that he will talk anywhere, any time, with Iranian leaders, when, to other audiences, he qualifies this, basing the qualification on Iranian President Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and threats to wipe Israel off the map.
Both Bush and Obama sacrifice consistency and credibility for affirmation. The cost of establishing a legacy and political sloganeering can be high. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate suggested that Iran ceased nuclear warhead work in 2003 because Saddam's downfall showed Bush was serious about enforcing his policy. After last month's policy reversal, the Iranian assessment was different. A prominent Revolutionary Guard general called America "beaten and humiliated."
Consistency is a virtue, even when politically unpopular. Senator John Sidney McCain III, the presumptive Republican Party nominee, endorsed the surge long before Bush, not because 30,000 troops would enable the United States to do in Iraq what it had not before, but, rather, because it would demonstrate resolve to militias and terrorists who -- like Osama bin Laden before 9/11 -- preached that the United States had become a paper tiger, unable to back its words with actions. It is doubtful Russian forces would invade a U.S. ally, if they believed U.S. resolve strong.
Both Bush and Obama pander for adulation. Change may be a good slogan, but restoring U.S. credibility requires not flip-flops, but consistency.
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 12, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1970)
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